Weekly dilemma… Staff Christmas parties

I have been put in charge of arranging my firm’s Christmas party, and I’m finding the prospect quite daunting. Are there any tips or legal issues that I should bear in mind?

You don’t have to be Martha Stewart to throw a successful office party. But there are a number of important legal issues to consider.

First, consider the day and time. To avoid any complaints of less favourable treatment, you may want to consider a lunchtime function. An evening party may not be convenient for those with childcare commitments, and an event on a Friday night may exclude people of certain faiths.

Also, a selection of non-alcoholic beverages should be available for those that don’t drink (including on religious grounds), for those that have to drive and, just as importantly, to keep alcohol consumption to moderate levels.

Employers can be liable for employees’ actions at work-related social functions, as was held to be the case in Chief Constable of Lincolnshire Police v Stubbs (EAT). Make it clear to all staff, in advance, that the company’s rules of conduct and disciplinary procedures will still apply.

Harassment includes unwanted conduct that has the purpose or effect of violating someone’s dignity at work, so what goes on at the office party will clearly have an impact in the workplace. In a case reported last month, an employee won damages from her employer after being fondled at a Christmas party by her boss (Chi v The Investors Club Ltd (unreported).)

Finally, managers should be careful not to make any promises at the party that could be a legally binding, contractual commitment. In one case, the court considered the environment in question meant that the manager did not intend a promise of a pay rise to be legally binding. However, this matter went to appeal, and the next employer may not be quite so lucky (Judge v Crown Leisure Ltd, (Court of Appeal).)

By Howard Lewis-Nunn, barrister (non-practising), Howard Kennedy

For more on how to throw a litigation-free Christmas party, see November’s issue of Employers’ Law.

Each week we ask the experts to answer your legal dilemmas. If you have a legal question or dilemma, e-mail dawn.spalding@rbi.co.uk


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